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Teach to the demands of real life

Jonalis working at Kitchen Central.
Jonalis working at Kitchen Central.
Front and center in our curriculum and practice is the idea of teaching ‘content and skills related to the demands of real life,’ a phrase from Donald Kagan. We use the experience of the workplace to bring this into clear focus and create opportunities to practice these skills:

  • Use self-presentation skills and non-verbal messages like eye contact, listening clues, posture, clothing to communicate with adults.
  • Understand one’s skills, interests, strengths and learning style to process information and advocate effectively.
  • Observe and understand a workplace culture’s expectations for success.

Apprentice Learning starts with explicit teaching and modeling in the classroom. Then students practice by videoing each other and offering critiques. Lastly, the workplace becomes the real world test where students have ample opportunities to practice in conscious and unconscious ways. To build learning, reflection is important. Watch one apprentice’s video here

4 Simple Signs: I am Listening.

Ready for work: are you listening?


Our eighth graders are truly excited to go to their first workplace but it may not always be immediately evident. Adolescent brains process information in wholly different ways than adults. Teachers know this but workplace supervisors may not. We teach our students a simple, effective strategy for interactions in the workplace to help them gain confidence speaking with adults they do not know.

Jeanny and Carylina listening carefully to Ron's directions on the set at WGBH.
Ron coaching Jeanny and Carylina on the set at WGBH. 

Apprentices, show adults you are listening.

You are in school all day. Listening. It is crucial to learning. Throughout the day in the classroom, as you listen to the teacher, you look out the window, turn around in your seat or even close your eyes.

Still listening? Likely you are. Except when you switch to the workplace where communication is usually among adults, you want to be sure to give off a few signals. At work, unlike at school, communication typically occurs among one to four people. Showing them you are listening is especially important.

In a professional setting, when an adult gives you instructions, he or she will look for signals from you that you are listening and that you understand what is being said. That’s what adults expect of each other. Here’s how to Here are a few tips you can use:

Four simple signals.

  1. Eye contact. Look at the person speaking.
  2. Turn your body toward the person speaking. Imagine you are a putting a spotlight on them.
  3. Nod your head. It means you are taking it all in. It could also mean you agree with what’s being said.
  4. Ask questions! It means you get it. It’s the best way to make the conversation more than a one-way presentation. It shows you are listening and learning.

Try it.

Use these signals every 10-20 seconds with adult professionals. Take turns using each one. It will help the adults understand you better. And it helps you learn, too.

Skills That Matter

It goes without saying that the last few years have seen some of the greatest economic growth since the 2008 downturn. Just last week, it was announced that close to 295,000 new jobs were created in the month of February. But with the growing economy has come a growing problem.

New attention is now being paid to what has been coined the skills gap in our country. The skills gap is growing disconnect between the skills that employers deem important to the workplace and the skills that new workers bring with them.

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A January 2015 article in the Washington Post entitled, “Why so many college students are failing to gain job skills before graduation” pointed out that employers find recent college graduates are “severely lacking in some basic skills, particularly problem solving, decision making, and the ability to prioritize tasks.” Research done into the skills gap shows that while many college students believe they are prepared with these skills, their employers disagree.

We’ve reached a point where many of the newly created jobs are going unfilled. Even with years of technical training and specialized education, workers are lacking some of the most foundational skills required to be successful in the workplace.

Here in Jamaica Plain we are taking the skills gap head on. Skills are at the core of what we do at Apprentice Learning. Last week I observed our Apprentices at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University learn more about nano-materials and DNA then most of the people in my college graduating class, and that was only the orientation. An apprenticeship at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering is a parallel work experience, meaning that the apprenticeship is designed to mimic the work experience of professionals in the field. After their orientation, the Apprentices get right to designing. With just a set of bottle caps and magnetic chips, the Apprentices lived through a typical Wyss project. With far less formal education or training, the 8th graders used excellent communication skills and teamwork to accomplish their goal, the same kind of work skills that the highly trained scientists and engineers in the room use on a daily basis.

Apprentices from the BTU Pilot School and the Mission Hill School discuss genetics project.   Photo credit: The Wyss Institute at Harvard
Apprentices discuss genetics project.  Photo Credit: The Wyss Institute at Harvard University. 

This kind of skills practice is true across all of our sites. An Apprentice at First Literacy practices organization while at the Game Engagement Lab at Emerson College they practice attention to detail. Helping customers at Boing Toy Shop entails good communication; while attentiveness and kindness is essential in the care of young children at Horizons for Homeless Children.

Employers in all fields believe these kinds of skills are essential employee success. I am proud to say that our 8th grade Apprentices are getting a head start. When they are at work, the experience they gain may not be specialized training in game development or bioengineering. Instead, they practice skills most valuable to the workplace, communication, punctuality, teamwork, and reliability, skills that will matter for life.

What is a Pot of Gold, Exactly?

I wanted to share a recent blog post by my dear friend and mentor Deborah Meier. Deborah offers an enthusiastic review of a book by Susan Engel, “The End of the Rainbow.” In it. Ms. Engel asks, “What if we made the implicit goal of education happiness rather than monetary attainment?” It’s a fascinating viewpoint that gives all of us on the right and the left, pause for thought. Here’s my thought…

Apprentice Learning is not teaching career education just to help kids make money. We do want Apprentices to have options other than a low wage, low skill job. The skills we teach help young people navigate a complex adult world–one that inevitably includes working–and feel confident in many workplace cultures. These professional skills such as communication, self-advocacy, cultural sensitivity, etc. are valuable in many settings, including those outside of work. Academic skills alone are not adequate.

Our students are motivated to practice and learn because they are eager to work. They want to join the adult world. Most so they can make money. That’s their starting point.


Kids believe happiness and money are related. What they don’t fully understand is the strange ways they are. Beyond the lifelong pursuit of these skills, we hope our participants grow to understand that attaining happiness is more than just making money.

Taking Things Seriously? Please Do!

The popular press has reams of articles about how not to take things too seriously. In our business working with middle school students, sometimes, we have the opposite problem.

This is the midpoint of the school year—and the time when students edge up to the point of no return. Their toes are on the precipice of failing 8th grade. Warning notices go home this week that say ‘If the student cannot improve, completion of summer school will be required before the student may advance to high school. Staying back in 8th grade. That’s not good.

At home and at school, conversations with the student might go something like this, ”Why aren’t you taking this seriously?” At this point, not taking school—and their academic future—seriously what can we do to disrupt this downward spiral? All too often, the adults are puzzled and frustrated by this disengagement.

Cassidy gives Bryan a lesson on the register
Cassidy gives Bryan a lesson on the register

What does it take to create a seriousness of purpose for a student who is off track? What would spark their engagement? Many students have stellar qualities: they are organized, have strong interpersonal skills, many are punctual and reliable. But without the engagement engine these attributes are sleepers.

For a student relegated to spend five weeks from 8 am to 2 pm in a summer school classroom, what could make the experience worthwhile and valuable?
We see Apprentices who are engaged in their preparation for work and have a very high degree of seriousness. What’s the secret sauce?

Kurt Hahn, founder of the Outward Bound movement once said,
” …There are three ways of trying to win the young. There is persuasion. There is compulsion and there is attraction. You can preach at them; that is a hook without a worm. You can say, “you must volunteer.” That is the devil. And you can tell them, “you are needed” that hardly ever fails.”

Apprenticeships create a place in the world for students to feel needed. They are an invitation to work alongside and join an effort to be of service. Here’s what the Apprentices have to say,

“When my boss taught me how to check people out, I was so excited. I had really wanted to do it. It taught me how to operate a cash register and give people the correct amount of change. It was fun and helped me use my math skills in the ‘Real World’.” – Kaya, Apprentice at Boing! Toy Shop

This prepares us (8th graders) for high school life, not just high school but life itself. I came in here scared is worried—would anyone like me? Is everything gonna go by fast? Slow? It’s worth it because you have a good time and learn skills. I don’t think there was a single dull moment. We have a good time and I learned lots of useful skills. —Yanisa, Apprentice at Thrift Shop of Boston.

As educators, our charge is to create authentic learning experiences that provide a compelling reason for students to take their learning seriously. It’s high stakes learning with clear purpose: to be needed. Ideally, students understand that learning math can mean they will be useful in the world.

What Was Your First Job?

“What was your first job?” This is one of the most common questions we ask at Apprentice Learning. Jobs are always on our mind. It’s what we do for middle school students. And as our fall process of apprenticeships comes full circle, I realize that the question is less about one’s first actual “job” and is instead about the first time you realized that your role in the working world mattered.

My first official job was working in a foster care office when I was about 14. I spent my shifts making copies and… well that’s pretty much it. But when asked about my first job, I always return to when I was 11 and selling frozen Capris Suns and Oreos out of a second book bag I would carry to school. It was a pretty nice setup for an 11-year old. I dragged that heavy second book bag to school filled with frozen Capri Sun juices and packs of Oreo cookies. The only thing I ever worried about was whether or not the juices in my bag would crush the cookies. It may not have been an official job. But I always go back to that as my first real working experience. That’s because it was one of the first “jobs” that actually needed me.

Your first work experience is more than just something to throw on a resume. It’s a way to instill a sense of worth and a feeling of being counted on. This newly support sense of worth changes the way you see yourself and shows you that you belong in working world. You have something to offer and that there are people ready and waiting to see it. This is the moment we are looking for when asking about someone’s first job; the moment when you see the connection between what you can do and what needs to be done.

Our apprenticeships for the fall are complete. I cannot express enough how proud I am of this group of Apprentices. Over the last 2 months we have had 21 Apprentices work at 12 different sites all over the city the Boston. As 8th graders they have cared for infants, managed stocks, edited cartoons, built bikes, organized weights, sold comics, greeted customers, prepared meals, and so much more. They have matured into productive and more self-assured young people. One of them mentioned in his exit interview how special it was to work somewhere that “valued his input.” These Apprentices have all learned some incredible life lessons and are leaving work with new collection of skills that will matter for their entire lives. But along with all of that they are leaving with higher sense of purpose, a deeper understanding of all that they have to offer to the world, and most importantly a belief that the working world is somewhere they belong. Congratulations to the Fall 2014 class of Apprentices. We are so excited for your continued growth and can’t wait to see what other inspiring contributions you will make to the world through your work.


I Belong Here

I dropped by the Apple Genius Bar, a help desk where Apple employees known as “Geniuses” fix just about any computer issue you bring them.  I was called for my appointment by a young woman who introduced herself with a joke highlighting the fact that she was the only woman Genius at the Bar. I didn’t even notice until she made the joke.  But in fact, of the 15 Geniuses there that evening, she was the only woman working behind the counter.  In 2012, women made up only 26% of the labor force in computer and mathematics related fields. Unfortunately, until she mentioned it, I barely paid any attention.

There are a variety of reasons why there is a shortage of women in STEM related fields. I won’t pretend to understand them all.  But one barrier for young women is a lack of motivation to even pursue STEM related professions. Many young women in school right now aren’t motivated because they struggle to even imagine themselves as engineers, businesswomen, or computer scientists.  For many girls, without positive first hand experiences in those fields, this very idea never even crosses their mind.  The solution then doesn’t end with solely creating equal spaces for women in those fields.  It goes further to make sure that our girls are exposed to those careers as early and frequently as possible.  By providing opportunities for girls to not only see these careers but to learn them through experience instills a mindset that they too can do STEM related work.  The sense of competency and belonging that is created through these experiences provides girls the chance to fully imagine themselves in those careers and thus pursue STEM professions.

Apprentice Amurah at Northstar Asset Management Fall 2014
Apprentice Amurah at Northstar Asset Management Fall 2014

Fall apprenticeships are halfway complete and young women comprise more than half of our Apprentices. It important to recognize that at this point, they are thinking about their futures in some new ways. At New England Baptist Hospital, Apprentices are getting hands-on experience in medicine, learning about knee replacements with a biotech company while Apprentices at WGBH are exploring the future television production working on digital billboards. Our Apprentice at NorthStar Asset Management, an all-women organization, is learning about the stock market by competing with her mentors and co-workers in an online trading game, and winning!

We are watching the imaginations of our female Apprentices expand in remarkable ways as each of these young women begins to see themselves in professions they never considered before.  This is the next step for the young women in our society:  It’s about allowing them to step through the door of any profession and say, “I belong here.”

A Nation with Shared Public Purpose

The title of this blog is one of my favorite phrases from Eric Schwarz’ s new book, “The Opportunity Equation.” Eric writes his story of creating Citizen Schools more than 20 years ago. Armed with an idea and willing teachers and volunteers, he created a wonderful program that invites ordinary citizens to volunteer their time and share their expertise with youngsters.

The book tells an engaging story. And it’s much more: it’s a call to all citizens to share the task of educating America’s children, particularly those who have few extra opportunities provided by their families. Service to others builds a shared public purpose. This is the purpose of civic education.

Civic education isn’t just about the three branches of government; it’s an understanding of the common set of beliefs that bind us together as a country. At the heart of democracy, there is a sense of belonging to something larger than us. Otherwise there would be anarchy. Education is at the heart of how we convey these beliefs.

At the heart of education are schools. At the heart of schools are communities of children, families and adult professionals who care about the welfare of the collective, not only the individual. Sometimes the betterment of the whole come at the expense of the individual. Sometime a painful lesson and one that is essential for success. At their best, communities create a powerful personal feeling of belonging because the welfare of the whole is at the center of the conversation. Just what the founding fathers had in mind: a shared sense of purpose.

Classroom teaching is a profession. Some would say an avocation or a calling. Civic education is both an opportunity and a responsibility. How we each contribute to strengthening the republic is a private matter but it is of the greatest public importance.

“I like the classes and all but…”

Chris Moncrief is Apprentice Learning’s Program Director. You can read his bio on our Staff page. This is his first ‘official’ post. Welcome Chris!

It has been a great start to the year here at Apprentice Learning. After our second class, I asked the students for some feedback, “What do you think of classes so far?” One of the students said as politely as she could, “I like the classes and all but I thought we would be doing more, like, hands-on stuff.” Wanting to get right into some of that “hands-on work” is not a surprising request given what we might remember about being in the 8th grade. But for this student, hands-on meant something more. It just so happened that in this particular class students would be assessing themselves as having one of three primary learning styles: Tactile, Visual, and Auditory. The request for more hands-on activity was no surprise when we learned the student was a Tactile Learner. Although this student’s discovery was made after her request, it is my hope that this new self-knowledge will go a long way toward supporting her learning in all opportunities.

It was so wonderful to see the class light up with expression as all of their seemingly impulsive classroom behaviors started to make sense. They were gaining insight into their individual needs and then learning how to advocate for them. Students are using their learning styles as a way to communicate to their future employers how they can be most successful at work as well as a way of asking for the appropriate help with their school work. Tactile Learners know that they need to just try something, successfully or not, in order to understand it. Visual Learners know they need to ask for someone to show them and walk them through something in order to understand. Auditory Learners know they need just one clear set of directions to be able to understand. So whether Apprentices are weighing food at a pet shop, or learning about personal finances in an office, they are equipped to make these experiences work best for them. We have empowered them to take ownership of their education and make connections between the classroom and the outside world that otherwise may not have happened.

I can’t blame that student for asking for more hands-on experiences. In fact, I am excited by it. It means Apprentices are ready to start engaging full-on with the work they are going to be doing. Apprentice Learning is changing and furthering the educational experience of these students. This group of Apprentices is gearing up the next and final stage of their apprenticeship preparation. If this is how the rest of our classes will go, I look forward to all of the other amazing ways they are going to grow the fall.

I Got the Job!

Franchesca called full of excitement to share this news. It’s her first job and one that she worked to obtain by attending informational meetings, two interviews, and by following up weekly to make sure her application was on track.

The skills involved in each of these aspects of obtaining a job are an essential part of the Apprentice Learning experience. The world of work is more than showing up and shaking hands. It’s learning how to advocate for oneself and how to be persistent in the face of obstacles.

Franchesca is on her way to the Hyde Square Task Force as part of the youth leadership program, a competitive summer leadership program that will pay her a weekly salary. Participation extends into the academic school year and includes lots of related job opportunities throughout high school.

We are proud of Francescha and all of our Apprentices.

8th Grade Graduation
8th Grade Graduation

This year 88% will spend the summer before 9th grade engaged in some type of program or meaningful enrichment activity. This includes jobs, medical programs, academic programs, science and recreational camps. Experiences that will stem summer learning loss and offer meaningful relationships with adults and peers. These experiences are what help close the Opportunity Gap.

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